The Sting of Systemic Racism

Moments after he was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden reminded us that “we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility.” Then he listed the challenges: “We face an attack on democracy and on truth. A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate crisis. And America’s role in the world.”

“The sting of systemic racism.” This phrase resonates at a different frequency here in the greater Black Hills region than it does, say, in the floodplains surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi or in the tidal bottomlands of the Potomac basin. 

Racism is discrimination against others based on their race, as ageism is discrimination against others based on their age, or sexism is discrimination against others based on their sex. The common denominator in these divisive equations is discrimination. 

 But discrimination is not necessarily negative. One can discriminate truths from lies, or good from bad. In these examples, discrimination is a positive attribute of critical thinking. 

Racism, for certain, is not good, nor is it based on truth. It is purposeful discrimination against all persons who are assigned by the discriminators to a category of inferior humans. Most blatantly, this categorization is based on the color of a person’s skin, the texture of a person’s hair, or the features of a person’s face. More subtly, it is based on a person’s name, a person’s relatives, or where a person lives. 

When this type of discrimination is so widespread and deep-seated that it is unquestioned and unexamined to such an extent that it appears normal, then it is systemic. It is everywhere, not just in the bigoted actions of individuals or small groups, but even in the policies and practices of social systems such as governing, policing, and educating. 

Discrimination against American Indians is systemic in South Dakota. It is probably true that the number of truly racist persons is few, but the discriminatory practices and policies are almost countless. The ongoing perpetuation of these policies and practices is propelled by a number of bigoted beliefs, but a common result is the absence of American Indians in leadership positions.

Take, for instance, the six state-operated higher education institutions in South Dakota. American Indians comprise approximately 10% of the residents of our state, over 20% of the K-12 students in our state, but fewer than one percent of the full-time faculty at these six institutions. 

Similarly, at the K-12 levels, the South Dakota Department of Education has a consistent track record of not hiring American Indians, recently moved the South Dakota Indian Education Advisory Council from the Department of Education to the Department of Tribal Relations, and structured the Indian Education Advisory Council in such a way that 40% of its members are not American Indians. 

As an example at the county level of governance, the Bennett County Commission is comprised of five members. Approximately 60% of the county’s residents are American Indians, but not a single member of the Commission is an American Indian. Over the past five years, the Commission has filled vacancies by appointment three times. In each of these cases, the Commission appointed non-Indians. When Commissioners were asked if the lack of American Indian representation is a problem, they said no. 

Finally, at the quasi-city level of leadership, consider the Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors group in Rapid City. Its name suggests a Lakota-based group, since it contains two Lakota words. According to its website, the group has direct involvement with the Rapid City Police Department, the Rapid City Mayor’s Office, the Black Hills Powwow, and the Rapid City Indian School Lands project; the group advocates for “Bridging Cultures” and building better “Race Relations;” and the group has been funded by the Bush Foundation and is currently funded by the John T. Vucurevich Foundation. 

Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors (MOA) has unparalleled access to local government and governmental offices, to local and regional funding opportunities, and to key decision-making positions in Rapid City and the surrounding region. All this insinuates that the group is a dynamic non-profit organization with a diverse leadership board. But the reality is that the group is not incorporated. It has no board of directors, bylaws, or articles of incorporation, and therefore it has no legal, financial or organizational accountability. Instead, MOA is essentially a vanity club coordinated by a White woman named Karen Mortimer. 

The usurpation of leadership positions, as illustrated in the examples above, is a direct consequence of the bigoted belief that American Indians are unintelligent, are incapable of speaking and doing for themselves, are childlike and therefore not yet mature or sophisticated enough to be decision-makers. This supplanting of American Indian leaders is usually done by non-Indian do-gooders who reap the benefits of the “vacated” positions, including access to financial resources, career advancement, public prestige, and decision-making authority. 

Statewide, approximately 10% of staffs, boards and committees should be American Indians. American Indian boards—by definition—should be 100% American Indians. For projects primarily focused on American Indians and issues important to them, American Indians should account for at least a majority, but preferably the entirely, of the leadership positions. Public and private entities should similarly have equitable representation of American Indian sources for their business supplies. 

Such systems-wide changes could contribute to eliminating the discriminatory and stinging effects of systemic racism in our state. These are daunting ideas. But when faced with daunting challenges in the past, President Biden said, “enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.” When Americans have worked together, he continued, “we have never, ever, ever failed” to meet the challenges. 

Today is, he continued, “our historic moment of crisis and challenge.” Here in South Dakota, we can begin the work of eliminating systemic discrimination over the course of this “winter of peril and possibility.” But the question is, will we?

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)